FAIRHOPE—I am at a mass hugging. There is a roomful of people trapped in this bookstore. They have formed a single file line to let me vandalize their books with my sloppy signature. And I have hugged maybe two hundred folks at this book signing.

Nobody gets away without a hug.

I don’t even ask permission to hug people anymore. I just put my arms around them and squeeze. My wife and I have traveled to half the U.S. doing my little one-man show, and do you know what I’ve discovered? Ninety-nine point nine-nine-nine-nine-nine percent of all people like hugs. Multiplied times pi.

Though, every now and then you do run into a real life Ebenezer Scrooge who still uses corncobs instead of Charmin. Like tonight. One woman in line says, “I don’t hug. I’m Presbyterian. No thank you.”

This gal came to the wrong clam bake. I was raised Southern Baptist. And even though Presbyterians know how to read better than we do, in a hug-off, we Baptists win every time.

In fact, the only time a Southern Baptist can lose at competition-style hugging is when he goes to Sand Mountain, Alabama, and attends a Church of God. Those people are crazy.

So I hugged this woman anyway. At first, our hug was about as emotionally gratifying as televised golf, but after I held her a few seconds she loosened up and started laughing. Then she actually squeezed me and it was another victory.

Baptists 1; Presbyterians 0.

Look, I don’t want to come off sounding like a touchy-feely weirdo straight out of Woodstock, but I am big on hugs. I do not want to live in a world where hugs are not a thing.

Lately, I’ve been traveling around the Southeast, and lots of people have been extremely weird about hugging because of the coronavirus headlines. But if you ask me this is when we need hugs the…

OXFORD—I was initially nervous about being on Mississippi Public Radio, but my wife kept reminding me that I have the perfect face for radio. So here we are.

Thacker Mountain Radio Hour is a live variety show with music, singing, literature, fun, and Arnie the Magic Chicken who can tell your fortune by lifting his tail feathers and dropping “chicken magic” onto giant bingo cards.

No, I’m only kidding about Arnie the Chicken. Though I wish I weren’t because even a chicken could do a better job on the radio than I can.

Tonight I am in a “time slot.” This is an industry term. A time slot is basically the same as being interrogated by military intelligence personnel while on the air. You speak only when spoken to, give direct answers, and if you talk longer than allotted the stagehands drag you into the alleyway where you are assaulted by a gang of fortune-telling chickens and their ringleader, Arnie.

I am reminded often that I must be BRIEF on the air.

But the thing is, I am never brief, I am the opposite of brief. I am boxer shorts.

During sound check the stage manager with the clipboard is walking me through how things will go. She is extremely clear about this long winded business. She says, “When I hold up three fingers, you’d better be wrapping up, or else.”

“Or else what?” I ask.

“See that red smear on the floor? That was last week’s speaker, he went sixty seconds over.”

Anyway, what I like about Oxford is the relaxed vibe. It’s like many college towns. Ninety percent of the people on the sidewalks are young, energetic, and have no joint pain. These are known as students. The rest of the town population looks like the cast of the 1985 movie “Cocoon.” These are college faculty members.

Rumor has it that most University of Mississippi faculty members looked…

I did a book signing a few nights ago in Mississippi. There, I met a kid who gave me a hug so hard that he almost broke my ribs.

He was maybe seventeen. His name was Robert. He was slightly bald, and bone thin. He asked me to sign his book. Then, without saying another word, he handed me a folded note and disappeared.

This morning, I am reading his letter:

“Sean, I’m mad at the world. I can’t relate to my friends anymore, they’re all into dumb things in life, and I’m just not like them. Maybe it’s because I almost died three separate times from my cancer, and now that I’ve got a clean bill of health I’m not into all that shallow [bad word] that my friends are into.

“My dad left my mom when I was sick and he didn’t want to deal with me anymore, and I know I should be happy because I’m cancer free for now, but I'm so mad. Help.”

Robert, first off: We in this world all owe you an

apology. Let me be the first to offer mine. People can be blind sometimes, and I’m no exception. Humans do some bizarre things. Drive-thru liquor stores are only one example.

We can be unkind, hateful, uncaring, selfish, rude, and impulsive. Humans will let you down. But please don’t get too upset at us.

Sure, I know you feel like you’re an outsider, and that nobody understands you. And you’re right. Partially. But you’re also wrong. Because this world is full of outsiders. I’m one of them. And there are billions more of us.

But yes. For the most part you’re right about us all. This world is a mess. We’re self-important, self-promotional, self-interested, self-congratulatory, and self-aggrandizing, and some people are lactose intolerant.

And don’t even get us started on money. Nobody ever comes out and admits it, but we are all…

GREENWOOD—It’s late. There is no moon out tonight. We are driving across the barren Mississippi Delta. And it’s creepy.

We are on the sixth day of the book tour. So far we have covered—this is only a rough estimate—800 bazillion miles. My wife is road weary, maybe even a little delirious. To entertain herself she has taken to teasing me. For instance, when I fell asleep in the passenger seat she shouted, “FLAT TIRE! HELP! A FLAT TIRE!”

I woke up screaming. She laughed until she almost wrecked the vehicle. Medical professionals had to restart my heart with a defibrillator.

The Delta can be lonesome and scary at night. Our vehicle shoots across four million acres of empty, flat, loose dirt and floodplain, and it feels like being on the moon. There are no lights around. No stars. No trees. Only dark Delta.

We see a shape on the horizon. Maybe it’s a tree. Please God let it be a tree. Nope. False alarm. It’s only a tractor. Or it could be Satan.

Earlier this evening

I did a book signing in the charming town of Greenwood. I played a few songs on my guitar, signed some books, hugged necks. Then we rushed out the door to the next town.

But before we left, I met Mary Carol, who is a mainstay in Greenwood. She’s a slight woman with a friendly smile and a gracious accent that reminds you of Greek Revival mansions. She offered to take me to visit Robert Johnson’s grave.

I got very excited. “THEE Robert Johnson?” I said.

“Who?” my wife asked. “The guy who owns the hotel chain?”

It’s amazing how many people don’t know who Robert Johnson is. But the truth is, everybody knows his music. Sort of. If you’ve ever sat in a beer joint and listened to a bar band play “Brown Sugar” loud enough to loosen your fillings, you’ve heard Robert…

MERIDIAN—It’s overcast and gloomy today. I’m walking the hometown streets of Jimmie Rodgers and I feel his memory here.

When you cross the bridge in Meridian, you see the muddy trainyards crowded with tired boxcars, flatcars, and exhaust rising from diesel locomotives. And you know this is the junction town where the Grandfather of Country Music was born at the turn of the century.

There is some debate on the subject of Jimmie’s home place. An old woman I once knew swore that Jimmie’s kinfolk were from Geiger, Alabama. Another friend of mine says Bristol, Tennessee.

I can’t shed any new light on the matter. All I can say is: When you visit Meridian, do not mention either of these theories or they will drag you behind the Methodist church and shoot you.

I like Rodgers’ music so much that I often play it at my shows, I even yodel a little and sound like a bloodhound with bronchitis. Afterward, young people usually ask, “Who wrote that weird yodeling song?”

“Jimmie Rodgers,” I’ll say.

“That’s nifty. Does he have

a YouTube channel?”

You have to worry about America’s youth.

My appreciation for Jimmie Rodgers began at a church rummage sale when I was eleven. There was an old man named Brother Gary who sat behind a card table, selling several old guitars.

He was smoking a cigarette, wearing a pocket T-shirt. Gary was a Baptist deacon who openly smoked unfiltered Camels on church property without shame. It was a different world back then.

I was browsing Gary’s guitar collection when one instrument in particular caught my eye. On the back of this guitar was the word “THANKS,” painted in giant letters.

I asked about it. Gary said, “My wife painted that, because I always liked Jimmie Rodgers, he had the same thing painted on his guitar.”

“Who’s Jimmie Rodgers?” I asked.

The old man looked insulted. He yanked the guitar…

DEAR SEAN:

I’m so scared of the coronavirus. I’m honestly so scared I really can’t think about other stuff when it’s got me like this, and even my teachers are scared about it.

TEN-IN-BRIDGEPORT-CONNECTICUT

DEAR CONNECTICUT:

I know exactly what you should do to feel better. This might sound crazy, but listen carefully because I will only say this once:

You should eat a live frog.

I am totally serious. This is no joke. I will explain myself, but before I do I want to tell you that you’re lucky to live in Connecticut. My favorite writer lived there. His house still stands in Hartford, they’ve turned it into a cool museum and I’d give almost anything to see it.

I fell in love with this particular writer in the fourth grade when I first read a story called “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” And it made me laugh.

You probably wouldn’t care about this story, it’s about a frog-jumping contest. Also, it’s a little tough to read since it was written in 1865, and in those

days people used funky words like “betwixt,” “inasmuch,” and “whence.”

As it happens, 1865 was a crazy year in America. Women were wearing Victorian fashions. The West was still wild. The pioneers were traveling great distances with their families, enduring hardships, roaming in covered wagons through untamed wilderness in search of free WiFi.

You’re probably thinking: “Big deal. What’s your point?”

Patience, Grasshopper. I’m getting there.

First, I want you to get this historic setting: Abraham Lincoln has just been sworn in for a second term. Half the country wants the other half killed. The Civil War is in full swing. About 620,000 men are dead. The newspapers are reporting on nothing but bloodbaths.

‘65 is a dark year, and it only gets darker. Officially, the war is over in April, but battles keep raging. Then six days after the war’s…

Dear Thelma Lou,

Right now I am five hundred miles away from you in Mississippi, out of town for work. And right now you’re probably in the backyard, trying to dismember a squirrel carcass. Or maybe you’re howling at the neighbors. Perhaps you’re digging a hole to Beijing, chewing our porch, or eating cat poop. There are so many options.

I miss you. Please mind your aunt Michelle while we are away. I have given her complete authority to spank you.

You might not remember the day we brought you home, but I do. Your loose skin hung over your eyes. You were chubby, with oversized paws, and a cute hindsection that wobbled when you walked. Your ears hung to the floor so that you tripped over them. You were all bloodhound.

For your first year, whenever you’d fall asleep on me you would pee. Every single time. One moment, I’d be reading a book, and you’d be cradled on my chest. The next minute, warm liquid would be soaking my shirt. I would scream,

“THELMA LOU!” But you wouldn’t even bother waking up.

So I’d carry you out of the bedroom, careful not to disturb your sleep. Because even though I was covered in puppy urine, I liked to watch you sleep. I still love to watch you sleep, even though you aren’t a puppy anymore.

And believe me, you’re DEFINITELY not a puppy anymore. For crying out loud, the scale over at Pet We-Take-All-Your-Money Mart said that you weighed almost ninety pounds. Ninety. That’s heavy enough to be one of the Budweiser Clydesdales.

But you’ll always be a puppy to me. You came into our lives when we were a mess. We had just lost a thirteen-year-old dog named Ellie Mae. I wish you could have known her. You would have liked Ellie Mae. Everyone did.

When she left us, I was out of town for work, sort…